Youngkin seeks the will of the people but only when it’s politically convenient

Youngkin, who’s issued no shortage of executive orders and has made public pronouncements on a variety of topics, kept his mouth shut on restoration of voting rights

March 31, 2023 12:09 am

Voters at a polling station in Buckingham County, Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Forget, for a moment, that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has toughened the requirements for felons to regain voting and other civil rights upon release. It’s a punitive policy born in racism during the 1901-02 constitutional convention.  

Forget, too, the Republican administration didn’t inform Virginians en masse about the changes until Democratic legislators began fielding concerns from constituents. Or that released felons have said repeatedly how regaining those rights makes them better citizens. 

“It’s a huge deal,” Shawn Weneta, policy and advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, told me this week. Weneta had his rights restored in 2021 following an embezzlement conviction, and he noted studies suggest regaining those rights reduces recidivism, among other benefits.  

I’m struck, instead, by the rank hypocrisy of Youngkin’s move compared to his stance on parental rights in education. The political novice used the latter to propel him to elective office.  

Youngkin signed an executive order on Inauguration Day – hewing to a vocal minority of Virginians riled up by disingenuous conservatives – that parents “are empowered with open access to information on primary instructional materials utilized in any school.” In an op-ed last year, he wrote: “Virginia’s laws reinforce parents’ fundamental rights to make decisions with regards to their child’s upbringing and care.” 

When it comes to restoration of rights, though, Youngkin was noticeably mute when the General Assembly had a chance to amend the state Constitution and allow all registered voters a chance to weigh in by referendum.  

Stay with me here. 

The Assembly, when Democrats controlled both chambers in 2021, passed a bill on restoration of rights for felons. (Those rights include becoming a notary public and running for elective office.) The amendment was the first prong in a multi-step process. To be successful, it needs to pass a second time, and then Virginia voters need to approve it. 

Republicans gained control of the state House in 2022, the same year Youngkin became governor. They killed the bill in a subcommittee that session, though several Republicans had signed on as sponsors.  

Youngkin, who’s issued no shortage of executive orders and has made public pronouncements on a variety of topics, kept his mouth shut on this particular debate. So much for vox populi.  

The state constitution vests restoration rights in the governor. Several chief executives, starting with Republican Bob McDonnell, automatically returned citizenship rights for at least some former prisoners after their sentences ended.  

Democratic governors who followed made the process easier. Ralph Northam ended the requirement that felons had to complete parole before regaining their rights.  

Republicans probably fear ditching the gubernatorial prerogative would bring more African-Americans to the polls. The racial group overwhelmingly supports Democrats in national and state elections.  

That’s a lousy reason, however, for denying rights to any voting bloc, and it recalls the racist delegates at the constitutional convention in the early 20th century who blocked Black people from the polls. Other disenfranchisement tools included now-defunct literacy tests and poll taxes.  

The ACLU says only Virginia and Kentucky permanently keep convicted felons from the polls. That’s not a distinction to be proud of.

Kay Coles James, secretary of the commonwealth, said in a letter that “that every applicant [should] be considered individually as required by the Constitution and underscored by the Supreme Court of Virginia in 2016.” That’s fine, except a procedural issue that year under then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe was resolved, and there’s been no significant legal challenge to gubernatorial restorations since then. 

This administration hasn’t even been transparent about what’s changed.  

“I think it’s incredibly important for the administration to be very clear about how to apply, but also what criteria is being used,” said Rebecca Green,associate professor at the College of William and Mary Law School and co-founder of a program to help felons regain their right to vote.  

For example, a new form under the current administration asks applicants whether they’ve been convicted of a violent crime. If the answer is yes, does that lead to more scrutiny?   

A gubernatorial spokeswoman declined to answer my question about why Youngkin didn’t urge legislative Republicans to pass the constitutional amendment. You can’t tout a “tough-on-crime posture,” I suppose, unless you’re making it tough for former prisoners to regain basic rights. 

That’s a terrible way, however, to reintegrate people into society.  

As a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor wrote in one study: “Results suggest that reversing disenfranchisement causes newly enfranchised citizens to increase their pro-democratic attitudes and behaviors – all of which are predictors of reduced crime and recidivism.” 

My hunch is Republicans don’t want a referendum because many Virginians know people like Shawna Lawson. She regained her rights following robbery convictions in the late 1990s. Lawson now runs a nonprofit organization based in Newport News that assists people facing prison re-entry, homelessness and mental health issues.  

“I made a mistake in my youth,” Lawson told me. Voting allows “a say-so in things affecting you and your family. Just because you start in a position doesn’t mean you have to end in that position.” 

Weneta, the ACLU official, served 16 years in prison. He said he’s voted in every primary and general election since he regained his rights.  

“This really needs to go to the voters,” Weneta said. “Right now, it’s in the hands of a few partisan actors.” 

That means it’s great campaign fodder for anybody seeking a presidential bid. 

It stinks, though, for people who want to become fuller members of society and their communities. Stop using them as political pawns.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]